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A Change of Heart
written by Rachael Wilken
verotc@lavalink.com.au


This story may be best classified as a Hurt/Comfort Story involving the characters Xena: Warrior Princess and Gabrielle. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of issue may wish to read something other than this story.

GENERAL COPYRIGHT/DISCLAIMER:

Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

NOTE: All works remain the copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.

Warnings and Disclaimers written by Wildcat (wildcat@rainbow.net.au), (c) Wildcat, 1997.

 

~~~~~~ Epilogue ~~~~~~

The sun shone brightly, almost harshly, over the valley. The high position of the sun revealed that it was almost noon. Soldiers lined the rim of the hills, all sporting an array of swords, spears, axes, arrows and glinting armour. The expressions on their faces showed an inhuman greed, a fierce animal hunger for blood. At the helm of this army stood a woman, her face set like stone with an icy glint in her steel blue eyes. She was flanked on either side by a woman of slight, medium build which gave no indication of her inherent strength, her short red hair harshly framed her pretty face; and a hooded man, his face in shadow.

At the foot of the hills there stood a large, prosperous town. Forming a protective ring around the buildings were men, young and old, farmers by trade, yet willing to lay down their lives for the homes they had worked hard to build and maintain. Their faces betrayed their fear, yet in every eye there was the determination and courage that had brought them to stand up against the Warrior Princess and her army. One man stepped forward, and raised his primitive weapon, older than the rest, yet no less determined.

"Warrioress! We have decided. We cannot allow you to take everything that we have worked hard for all our lives. Cirra is a peaceful town but we will fight to protect our families from you and your soldiers!"

From his position by her side, the hooded man leaned over and whispered in the warrior’s ear. She nodded and raised her sword in the air. In a voice laced with annoyance and bloodthirst that left no room for mercy, she called to her soldiers,

"Kill ‘em all!" The girl beside her stared at her in eyes wide with horror.

"Xena, no!" In response, Xena turned her steely, inhuman glare onto her, then turned to join the fight with relish, knowing that despite her friend’s apprehension, she would not leave Xena’s side unguarded. In less than a minute the girl was fighting beside Xena’s side as the hooded man looked on with interest.

The battle was fierce, every hand stained with blood. Men lie dead on the ground like fallen leaves in autumn. Fights blocked streets and in the thick of it, her red hair matted with sweat, stood Xena’s friend. A farmer lunged at her with his sword, a thrust which she parried easily. The farmer, while no match for her skill was strong nonetheless, and his clumsy fighting pushed them towards a large building. A head was peering worriedly through the window, trying to stay out of view. The eyes locked on to the fight and opened wide in horror. The face left the window and the door burst open. A women with long platinum blonde hair stood in the doorway, knife in hand, anger burned in her eyes.

"No! My husband! No!" The cry struck the farmer’s ears, distracted him for a moment, all that was needed for his defeat. As he fell to the ground his wife’s tormented scream made the woman turn. The wife rushed at her husband’s killer, knife raised to strike. Shocked, all the woman could do was stand there, amazed at what was happening, her sword facing forward. The wife didn’t notice the sword in her headlong flight and too soon she was upon the woman. Impaled on the sword, the attack had lost it’s strength, the knife had plunged, not into the heart where it had been aimed, but in the woman’s shoulder. Feeling suddenly the tragedy of the events of just moments ago, and the years in Xena’s service, the woman, uncaring of her own pain, pulled the sword from the wife’s abdomen and carried her inside and laid her on the bed. In her moment of death the woman’s eyes still burned with hatred for the woman who had taken away her life and her reason for living. Then a glassy look overcame her eyes and they gently closed. As if in a trance the woman sat there, staring ahead of her, contemplating what her life had become. She looked down at the blood on her hands and began to cry. So lost was she in her reverie that she did not notice the smoke billowing around her and the flames eating away at the walls and ceiling of the building until she began to choke on the fumes. Over the roar of the fire she heard more little coughs.

"Who’s there? Where are you?" Only more coughing answered her. The woman, frantically looking about the building, saw a glimpse of two heads, each with long blonde hair, above in the loft. Before she could see more, she broke into a fit of coughing herself.

Walking past the building was Xena, glorying in her triumph, buildings on fire all around her. The sound of coughing caught her attention as she recognised who it was. She raced over to the building and stood in the doorway, squinting through the smoke for her friend. Soon enough she spotted her halfway up the ladder leading into the loft. A loud creaking, groaning sound shook the building, threatening its collapse. Xena raced over, pulling her away from the ladder, just as the floor above fell almost on top of them.

"Talea, come on!" What Xena had not expected was resistance from her friend. Dodging debris falling around them, Xena raced to the door.

"Xena, no! You don’t understand! There’s someone -" Talea saw, as Xena dragged her through the door, a small body stuck under a beam and another girl trying to pull her out. Giving up the girl fled the house through a hole in the wall into the field behind. Talea fought Xena to get back into the house but almost as they were through the door the building collapsed in a burning heap behind them. Talea went limp in her friend’s arms and Xena put her on the ground. Feeling something sticky on her hand, Xena pulled it away from Talea’s shoulder to find the knife wound made by the farmer’s wife. Talea, disoriented from the smoke and weak from her wound broke into deep racking sobs that finally subsided by the time Xena had wrapped a makeshift bandage around her shoulder. In a moment of compassion, Xena could see that the day’s events and perhaps her years as a soldier had finally taken their toll on her friend. The tears that would not stop falling from Talea’s eyes were proof of that. However, Xena hardened her eyes and her heart and whistled for her horse. She gathered Talea up and sat her in front while Xena held the reins. As she turned her horse about they both looked out to the field. There stood a girl; platinum blonde hair, like her mother’s, blowing uncaring in the wind. She looked about twelve or thirteen years of age, yet her expression showing the experience of a lifetime. When gazing at the two on the horse her eyes turned hard as stone and her face was a mask of utter hatred, her tears remained unshed. Talea saw the look in those eyes and slumped against Xena in despair and unconsciousness. Xena looked into those eyes with her own steely glare for a moment more, then dismissing the girl as unimportant rode off to her camp. That girl would grow up never to forgive either women for what suffering they had brought to her life; but a realisation that Talea had been trying to save her and her sister’s life shifted all blame onto Xena’s shoulders. The girl’s hatred for Xena would shape her life, her very soul, in the years to come.

When she got back to camp, Xena went to Talea’s tent and lay her down on blankets. She washed and bandaged the wound properly, which roused Talea somewhat. Talea just looked up at Xena with sad eyes and lifted her hand to caress Xena’s cheek. Xena’s eyes softened a little, then Talea looked deep into them,

"Xena, where is your heart?" With that Xena’s eyes hardened and became an impenetrable barrier. Talea, still appearing disoriented, looked up at the ceiling. "I have to find mine." Dismissing these words as nothing more than delirium, Xena got up and moved to leave. Talea looked again sadly at Xena’s retreating back. "Goodbye, Xena." This brought Xena up short as she whirled around to look at her friend, only to see that she had fallen asleep.

Shrugging, Xena again turned and walked away from Talea and at the entrance to the tent she was met by the hooded man. He had silently watched the exchange between the two friends with interest. She looked at him and smiled and she could see a glint of white teeth as he smiled back.

"Today was a great success! In more ways than you know."

"We were able to take supplies that will last for a month, and I’ve become quite rich today!" The glint of victory was in Xena’s blue eyes and her excitement evident in her voice.

"My dear, victory is yours. Shall we celebrate?" Grabbing a wineskin from one of her soldiers, Xena gulped down the bitter drink.

"Let’s!" At this a roar came from the soldiers and the eating and drinking began, which lasted long into the night.

All this Talea could hear from her tent, but the spoils of war now only brought tears to her eyes. Through the party all she could do was sit and contemplate what she would do with her life. Talea knew with certainty that she could not go on living this life that caused so much pain to so many. She sat up unsteadily and began to pack her things, not knowing where she would go, only that she had to get away tonight. Her tent was filled with chests of gold, presents from Xena, and she looked at them, assessing how much money she would need for the next few weeks and how much she could carry to give away. The tent flap opened suddenly, startling her.

"Ah, packing I see. Ready to leave?" It was the hooded man. The man had made no secret that he resented Talea’s presence at Xena’s side, called her interfering and naive in the ways of true battle. Talea could detect no real evil in his character just an inherent thirst for war, as if he was born into this state of addiction. And yet even though he made no secret of his desire for Xena, between him and Talea there was an undercurrent of attraction. Like opposite magnetic fields that are inexorably drawn to each other. Yet parts of their characters also repelled each other, more so now that Talea saw what kind of life she was living and what kind of person she had become.

"What do you want?"

"Nothing. I’m just checking to see if you’re ready to go."

"Who says I’m going anywhere? I thought we were leaving in the morning and I was just getting ready." A touch of obstinacy entered her voice.

"I know that you are planning to leave, Talea. You made up your mind to go, I’m here to make sure that you follow through. Now, I’ll help you pack." And he proceeded to do just that, leaving Talea stunned.

"You can take a horse with you, Xena won’t mind. All this will fit into saddle bags. All right, let’s go." The hooded man left the tent with Talea trailing silently behind. Suddenly she stopped.

"Wait, I’ll be right back." With that Talea slipped into the darkness and hurried over to Xena’s tent where she silently left a note explaining why she had to leave and that she hoped Xena would understand and join her one day. When she returned to the horses, the hooded man was waiting impatiently. He handed her the reins of a horse and she got up and gently laid her head on it’s shoulder and let her mind touch the horse’s.

"Enough! It’s time we got going, dawn is only hours away." The man had climbed on a horse, too, much to Talea’s astonishment.

"Where are you going?"

"I’m making sure you follow through. As soon as the sun comes up, I’ll head back. By that time you should be far enough away that Xena won’t try to get you to come back." With that he galloped out of the camp, leaving Talea to follow.

Before dawn broke they stopped at a creek surrounded by trees. It was still dark but there was enough light to see. Their horses wandered down to the water to drink. Talea stood, resting against a tree. She had never felt more lost and alone in all her life and yet she knew that making the break from Xena was the right thing to do. She just wished she wasn’t so alone. A twig cracked and she spun around to face the man, his face still in shadow despite the morning light. They hadn’t spoken since they had left camp except to give each other directions.

"It’s time I left." Talea thought she must be mistaken, but was that a touch of regret in his voice?

"I know," she answered uncertainly. She backed up into the tree when he walked closer to her.

"Talea, this really is for the best. You are not the warrior you thought you could be. I can see into your soul and it’s just not in you. For what it’s worth, Xena really did appreciate your opinions and your friendship. There is no one more loyal to her than you. But if you had remained you would have jeopardised her future as the ruler she is destined to be. I cannot let that happen."

"You’re not going to... kill me are you?"

"No! No. I like you too much for that. I have a present for you." He slipped a band on her right upper arm and closed the clasp. He let go of her arm and, unable to stop herself, she reached up and touched his face. She could feel the roughness of a beard beneath her fingers, then she pushed her hands backwards, into his thick hair. She was about to push his hood back so that she could see his face in the grey light when his hands stopped her and put them on his shoulders. "This is the only moment I’ve let compassion govern me. I don’t like it." Talea held her breath as she could feel his whisper across her face. He pushed his hood back and she saw his face, something even Xena had not yet seen. He was heart stoppingly handsome and, as he talked, her breath caught in her throat. "I don’t like liking you the way I do, Talea. But I can’t help it." In a voice so low she could barely hear him yet it compelled her to obey when he said, "close your eyes." With that he gently kissed her. She felt his mind meld with hers in a pleasurable sensation she had never known before.

"Who are you?" She whispered. Minutes later Talea was still standing there in the full light of dawn, dazed, and when she opened her eyes he was nowhere to be found. She lifted her hand to stroke the band on her arm. It was solid gold and very beautiful.

That was the beginning of her journey. She never saw Xena again, yet heard much of her and all that she accomplished.

*****************************

Part One

The inn was crowded. Men jostled each other at the bar, arguing over whose turn it was to be served by the beautiful, young maid. The air was rank with drunkards’ breath and half cooked meat. At the tables there were rowdy men playing dice, the numerous unconscious and travelers taking their mid-day meal on their way through town.

One such traveler was a woman. She was wearing a sleeveless deep purple dress that reached her knee and mid-calf length brown leather boots. Her copper-red hair flowed down to her waist, a complement to her creamy skin and deep green eyes. On her right upper arm she wore a gold band with an intricate floral filigree pattern. The bowl of stew she was eating was not the best she had ever had and the bread would have been better had it been fresh but it was the best the inn had to offer, so she wasn’t complaining.

She stood up, turned around to leave when she felt a hot, sweaty hand grab her shoulders. The raucous noise in the inn ceased suddenly. She turned around to face the man who held her in his grip and attempted to shrug his hands off. This movement only made him tighten his grip. She eyed him coolly and met his gaze without fear.

"Excuse me but I would like to leave, now."

"You ain’t goin’ nowhere, little Miss, not till I say so." She winced at the stale breath that came out from between his blackened teeth.

"Please, let go. I don’t want any trouble."

"I wasn’t plannin’ on any trouble, Miss. I just thought a little fun was in order."

"Well I’m sorry but you won’t find any fun with me. Please let go of me, I want to leave."

"An’ I still say you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Me an’ my boys are gonna have ourselves some fun with you."

At this a loud cheer came from the drunks at the dice table.

"I don’t think so."

"Well, you don’t really have much of a choice, now do you?"

"If you say so." She deliberately went limp in his grip until he loosened his hold on her shoulders. Then she quickly reached down and grabbed his ankles. He let out a yelp of surprise as he fell to the floor with a hard thud. Standing up she prepared herself in case someone else tried to keep her at the inn.

A shocked silence met her unspoken question and she looked at each group of men in turn to judge if any proposed danger. There was no one willing to meet her eyes and they all looked decidedly sheepish. She could tell that the man laying unconscious at her feet was a leader about the place. Seeing no danger, she relaxed her body, picked up her bag and was about to walk out when, unexpectedly, the innkeeper ran from behind the bar and shouted at her.

"Wait! Please, wait!" She turned around and eyed him coldly.

"I don’t mean any harm, I promise. Is there anything I can do for you? Really? It’s the least I can do."

The icy glint left her eyes and she nodded slightly.

"If a warrior woman by the name of Xena comes in here or you hear of her in the village, tell her Talea was here and that she is headed west. She will understand if you tell her. Mind that you, and only you, tell her."

The innkeeper, his brow creased in concentration, said, "Tal-ay-ahh. Talea is headed west. Right. Is that all you want?"

"Oh, she may have a friend with her. Gai, no... Gabrielle. If you see Gabrielle and cannot get to Xena, tell her. She will repeat it to Xena. Thank you, friend." She went on her way, up the main road and the innkeeper, relieved she did not ask for more, went back inside to deal with his again rowdy customers.

Talea had gone a fair way up the road before she turned to see if she was still insight of the village. Seeing that she wasn’t she looked around for a large, dry rock. She found one and thankfully sat down on it. Talea could taste the salty blood on her tongue, she had been biting her lip too hard but it was necessary. Now she let go and, out of sight of the villagers, she let the painful, racking coughs shake her body.

*****************************

A dark, hooded man emerged from the shadows, unnoticed by the men around him, chuckling to himself.

"Strong, brave... stupid. Beautiful. Same old Talea." Laughing now, he disappeared completely.

*****************************

"I think we should get the ham, Xena."

"No, it would spoil too quickly. Bread and cheese, then we can get Argo new shoes and feed and have a meal at that inn over there," Xena replied, letting her eyes settle on the rough building. "I sure could use a mug of ale..."

"Ale! Ugh!"

"Oh, come on! All strong warriors drink ale, come and try some, Gabrielle!" Goaded Xena, grinning mischievously at her friend.

"Hey, I am a warrior! I just don’t... Oh, all right!" Gabrielle turned, with a worried expression on her face, and bought the bread and cheese. Xena just laughed at her and led Argo over to the blacksmith. Then together they went over to the inn.

Xena and Gabrielle instantly noticed the stench coming from the unsavory lot over in the far corner. As soon as the light from the doorway was blocked everyone looked up to see who was coming in. Seeing they were women the men in the inn fell into a silent appraisal of the two. The innkeeper especially was looking at them carefully. Xena suspicious and Gabrielle uncomfortable under the unwavering gazes walked towards a table. This seemed to wake the inn from its spell and, as suddenly as it had stopped, the noise soon rose back to its ear splitting level. Gabrielle got up and walked over to the bar and asked the innkeeper for a mug of ale and two bowls of stew. Still looking at Xena, he nodded, then turned to look at Gabrielle.

"Is that Xena, the warrior princess?"

"Yes, it is," said Gabrielle, tiredly, as if she was asked that a lot.

"Then I have a message for you, you are Gabrielle? Anyway, Talea says...Wha..!"

Behind them there was a crash and Gabrielle whirled around to see Xena brushing her hands as if satisfied with something. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at her friend.

"What? He was bugging me and he just wouldn’t stop." Xena said defensively.

Gabrielle turned around and apologised to the innkeeper and asked him to continue. She sounded loud against the now whispering crowd.

"I was saying, Talea-"

Xena jumped up at the mention of the name.

"Talea? What about Talea?"

"I was saying, Talea asked me to tell you that she was headed west. That’s all."

"How long ago was she here?" Xena sounded rather excited now.

"Ummm.... Oh, about two hours ago now, I’d reckon. She left on foot."

"Thanks. We won’t be needing that stew any more, thank you anyway!" Xena was already dragging Gabrielle out the door.

"What! Xena, I’m starving!"

"You can eat some bread on the way. We’ll ride Argo so we can catch up with her quicker."

Xena impatiently waited for Argo’s shoes to be attached before they could leave. Gabrielle, meanwhile, sullenly ate a piece of bread but she was secretly excited. Who was Talea, and what connection did she have with Xena’s past?

*************************

"So, Xena. Who is Talea?"

"Talea was one of my soldiers back in the old days. She was one of the people who taught me how to use a sword - properly. Lyceus and I were able to teach ourselves a lot of moves but Talea’s father was the village blacksmith and sword maker so she was able to really show me how to fight. What Talea couldn’t teach me Ares did, he’s the one that made me as good as I am. Talea taught me a lot about healing, too. Her village was the first one that I ever conquered. As I remember it, Talea was the one who put up the best fight. It ended up that we came together head on and I could see that there was no way I was going to win because she was so much better than me. Anyway, she caught me off guard and floored me. Then she held out her hand to me and said, "You know, if you’re going to protect Amphipolis you’ll need to improve your fighting." And she smiled at me, we were friends ever since. We formed a sort of partnership, she wanted to protect her village and I wanted to protect mine."

"Xena, if she’s someone from your past, maybe you shouldn’t meet up with her. I don’t want you start reminiscing about the old days and then wake up to find you’ve left to take over a village." Xena laughed.

"No, Gabrielle. Talea’s not like that. Talea wanted to help me because it would protect her village from any dangerous warlords. She only stayed with me in the end because she was too loyal and too good a friend to admit I had become evil. Talea is one of the best people I have ever known. She realised I had started to lose sight of what I had set out to achieve just before I captured Caesar. Talea left before that to visit her family and her old friends. She took her money home to give to them, which was the reason she was with me in the first place. It took her a while to find me after Mt. Nessus, considering all that had happened while she was away it’s not surprising. When she found me I was totally changed. Ares had begun to influence me then, nothing she could say could get through to me. I woke up one morning and she had gone. She left me a note to tell me that she couldn’t stand by and watch me become a monster. It was after the slaughter of Cirra. That day I lost one of the closest friends I ever had."

"But I thought she was loyal to you?"

"She was the most loyal warrior I have ever had. Talea left because she killed a woman that day, in self defence, but for a less than worthy cause. She finally let herself see what I had really become. Talea had to leave, I understand that. I’m only surprised that she doesn’t blame me for all that I put her through."

"Why did she have to leave?"

"Talea had to leave because my life, my actions, would have destroyed everything she believed in. She is like you, full of good intentions. We were young and she was full of ideals that I couldn’t live up to. She kept on suggesting that we help the villages that we conquered instead of pillaging them. And she was right, that’s what I should have done, I see that now. It would have lead to greater riches. But, you know, everything is clearer in hindsight. And I was enjoying all the destroying at the time. She never gave up on me, sent me letters telling me what she was doing, the people she helped and how good it felt. I read them but Ares made me burn them while he watched. I hadn’t heard from her for years, until now. I thought I’d never see her again. We must have nearly caught up to her now."

"She sounds like a really interesting person. I’ll bet she could tell me a few stories!" At that thought Gabrielle brightened and looked forward to meeting Talea. Xena just laughed at Gabrielle and said, "Typical!" >From then on their journey was silent, both lost in thought and excited about meeting Xena’s old friend for very different reasons.

***************************

Part Two

Walking along the road, Talea could sense trouble ahead but kept walking as if nothing was wrong. "Maybe they’ll go away if I don’t take any notice," she thought. She saw a large clump of shrubs up a bit further and knew there were bandits watching her from behind them. Warily she approached them, still not letting her expression show that she knew. Talea walked past the shrubs and tensed herself ready for the attack. Then she heard the hard laughter behind her and she spun around to face it’s owner.

"Well, well, what do we have here? A woman," he grinned evilly, "let’s get her boys!"

And then Talea heard men jump out of the forest behind her. She was surrounded by about ten burly men, most with swords but some not.

"Come on guys! This is hardly fair! Me against you boys? Maybe I should give you a chance to surrender?" This challenge elicited a laugh from the leader, which was when the others realised that they should laugh too. This only made Talea laugh as she thought to herself, "stupid!"

The leader suddenly stopped laughing and lunged for Talea. Thinking quickly, she somersaulted through the air to give herself space to fight them off. Truth be told, Talea herself was not sure she could handle all ten men on her own.

As it turned out, she did not have to fight the bandits by herself. Talea heard a familiar cry and saw Argo round the corner with Xena and Gabrielle on his back. Xena vaulted off her back and left Gabrielle to reign her in and instantly joined the battle. Xena and Talea grinned at each other in pleasurable recognition for an instant before again concentrating on the fight at hand. Xena saw Argo waiting down the road and noticed Gabrielle join the fight. It took Xena a bit longer than she had expected to rid herself of the fool she was fighting and just as she pushed him to the ground she heard a shout behind her.

"Hey! What are you guys doing! Leave those women alone!" Great, Xena thought, a farmer wanting to be our savior! Well he’s in for a shock when he finds out we don’t need his help, she grinned to herself at the thought. Her spirits up, she dispatched the next ruffian more quickly than she would have otherwise done and started on the next. The prospect of showing a man up always had that effect on her!

Talea was having a bit of trouble handling two bandits at the same time, without a weapon. She and Gabrielle had heard the shout as well and their thoughts had been along the same lines as Xena’s. The taller bandit she was fighting pushed her to the ground and she used the opportunity to find a large stick that she could use as a weapon. As it turned out she was in luck and as the bandit was executing his downward blow Talea met it with an upward push with her makeshift staff. She hooked her foot around his ankle and pulled him over. Talea rolled out of the way just as her second attacker went to kick her and only just got out of the way as something hit the bandit on the head and he fell unconscious beside her. Surprised, she looked up to find a stranger holding a sword. He grinned at her a moment before preparing to fight the first bandit. Feeling somewhat miffed at this stranger, as well as grateful but not willing to show it yet, Talea said curtly,

"Excuse me, but he’s mine."

The stranger just nodded to her in understanding and left to help Gabrielle. The bandit just laughed as if he was in luck and thought that he and his men had someone to play with tonight. Knowing this, Talea set out to finish him quickly. She blocked his thrust easily with her stick and while his hands were occupied she kicked him in the stomach, winding him. Catching him off guard, Talea took the opportunity to kick his sword out of his hand. Seeing all was lost, the bandit stood, too dazed to do anything else. She quickly knocked him out. Talea looked about her, Xena had just finished with her share of the fighting so Talea walked over to her and stood beside her as they watched Gabrielle and the stranger. Gabrielle completed her duel with one blow to the head of her opponent and he fell to the ground. Seeing Talea and Xena standing to the side, watching, she walked over to join them.

"Who’s that?" asked Gabrielle, impressed with a person willing to save the lives of strangers.

"We don’t know. He knows how to use a sword well though. As well as you can, Talea, and you taught me a lot of what I know."

The stranger quickly knocked the sword from the bandit’s hand and hit him on the head with the hilt, knocking him out. The stranger walked over to the women.

"Hello, ladies. I don’t believe we’ve had time for introductions. I am Sera."

"I’m Gabrielle. Thank you for helping me back there."

"I’m Xena."

"And I am Talea. I probably sounded rude before but thanks for helping."

"No problem. You know this area is full of bandits, you really shouldn’t be on your own out here. It is dangerous." He looked at Talea as he said this, as if he did not want her particularly to get hurt.

"We can take care of ourselves," Xena said curtly, insulted that he thought that they were helpless females. Catching her tone, he laughed.

"Yes, I guess you can. Where are you headed?"

"Nowhere in particular," Talea said quickly.

"I would gladly go ‘nowhere’ with you, but it seems we are headed in opposite directions. I am for Tempolis."

"The city of temples. They have some of the best bards in the country there. I hope you’ll stay long enough to hear a few of them." Gabrielle was always ready to endorse her favorite cause. Sera just laughed.

"Perhaps I will. I should thank you for the light entertainment that you provided me with." He looked deep into Talea’s eyes and as he brought her hand to his lips she blushed. "Thank you. I sincerely hope we will meet again." He suddenly remembered Gabrielle and Xena. "Goodbye, it was nice meeting you."

"Goodbye," all three said in unison. He laughed again and then he turned and left them looking after him. Talea was the first to turn in the other direction and start walking. Xena whistled and Argo emerged from the bushes and trotted towards them. Then Talea stopped, realising that she and Xena had not said hello properly.
"Xena. It’s so good to see you again. I am glad that you found me. For a minute there it felt as though we had never been apart!" Talea gave Xena a hard hug which was returned just as warmly and with a smile. "It’s been a long time since I’ve seen your smile." She turned her gaze to Gabrielle. "You’re Gabrielle, aren’t you?"

"Yes, and you’re Talea." Gabrielle and Talea liked each other instantly.

"Are you sure you don’t want to go to Tempolis? I know of one man that wouldn’t mind your company there!" Xena laughed.

"You always did enjoy teasing me! I have missed you Xena!"

"And I you. Nothing was ever right without you. At least now I can look at you without feeling so much shame."

"Xena, I carry as much guilt as you. Let’s not think about it." A sad smile accompanied Talea’s words.

"So, are we really headed ‘nowhere?!"

"Of course not! I need to go to a temple, it’s near here."

"But all the temples are back in Tempolis."

"Not this one, Gabrielle."

"Neighhhh!"

"Argo! I almost forgot."

"You walk on ahead with her if you want, Gabrielle and I will hang back here."

"Thanks. I’ve really missed you, Xena" With that she took Argo’s reins and led her ahead while Xena and Gabrielle stayed behind until they were out of earshot before they started walking themselves.

"Why are we staying behind so Talea can walk alone with Argo, Xena?" Gabrielle was beginning to wonder about the sanity of Xena’s old friend. Having heard this reaction from people before, Xena just laughed.

"Talea is walking ahead so she can talk to Argo."

"Talk to the horse? Is she all there?" Gabrielle was sounding very doubtful. Xena just laughed again.

"Talea is the sanest person I know."

"Xena, she’s having a conversation with a horse!"

"Talea is a telepath, Gabrielle. She can talk to Argo with her mind."

"Oh. Wow!"

"Talea taught me how understand Argo. Tune into her body language, communicate with her, all that stuff."

"Don’t tell me you’re telepathic too and you never mentioned it?"

"Of course not," Xena said quietly, they were approaching Talea as she and Argo had stopped walking and were waiting for Xena and Gabrielle.

"Argo says she saw more bandits hiding in the bushes. They shouldn’t attack us while the others are still unconscious. So we really should put some distance between them and us and try for the next village before nightfall."

"I agree."

"So, Talea, can you read anyone’s mind, or just some people’s?" Talea was amused with Gabrielle’s curiosity but was not unwilling to answer her questions.

"Actually, I can only talk to animals. Why don’t we walk and talk at the same time. We might cover better distance that way. Hmmm... What else? I can also sense the presence of other minds and see over great distances, when my eyes are closed..." So she and Gabrielle talked about her telepathic abilities while Talea and Xena both were keeping a watch for any more trouble.

**************************

"I think we’ll have to stop here. It’s too dark to go on any further," Xena said, looking around her and up at the sky.

Gabrielle and Talea were laughing and did not hear her. All afternoon the three were exchanging stories about each other and Gabrielle was totally engrossed in the ones Talea told her about her best friend. When they finally registered that Xena had spoken, Talea asked her to repeat what she had said.

"I said, we will have to sleep the night around here because it is too dark to go any further."

"Of course. Over there looks like a pretty good spot." Talea had picked a small clearing on a small hill. There was not much ground cover, so the chance of a snake crawling among their blankets during the night was fairly minimal.

"I was thinking exactly the same thing!"

"Do you want me to go and get some wood?"

"No, Gabrielle. I’ll go, you and Talea can get the blankets and food out." Xena smiled at them, knowing they would get nothing done while she was gone but would continue their conversation. Talea and Gabrielle just grinned at each other unashamedly.

**********************

Not far away, a hooded man was speaking to the very group of bandits that were defeated by the three women.

"You idiots! You were supposed to kidnap the redhead, not let her escape!"

"But, Master, you never told us them girls were warriors! They knocked us out cold!"

"They are just women! What is wrong with you? I hired thugs and it turns out you’re all just spineless boys!"

"But..."

"No more excuses! I want that girl, tonight!"

**********************

Talea and Gabrielle were talking at the campsite and laughing rather loudly. The weren’t paying attention to anything but each other and their new found friendship. Suddenly Talea’s face went pale and she clenched her jaw. Her movements went unnoticed by Gabrielle who was looking around the clearing.

"I wonder where Xena is?"

**********************

At the very moment Gabrielle said this, about 200 feet from the clearing, Xena was attacked by three of the bandits. Xena took to teaching them a lesson with great enthusiasm.

**********************

At the edge of her mind, Talea felt a jarring. She closed her eyes momentarily, and visions of Xena’s fight flooded her mind. Jumping up quickly she grabbed Gabrielle’s staff and handed it to her. In a husky voice she warned Gabrielle.

"Here, quick, take it! Xena’s been ambushed! You go and help her, I’ll go a different way and meet you there. Hurry, Gabrielle, and be careful, they’re everywhere!"

The two hurried off in different directions but Talea stopped and watched Gabrielle run to Xena’s aid. When she was out of hearing distance Talea surrendered to the painful coughs that shook her whole body. When she pulled her hand away from her mouth she rested it on a tree while she recovered her breath. Once the pain faded she took a deep breath and she realised that the familiar salty taste of blood was in her mouth. She took her hand away from the tree and saw the bloody hand print she had made. She knew there was not much time left. When the shock had worn off and she again became aware of the world around her she realised that she could not hear a sound. The living forest was as quiet as death itself. Talea knew that something was very wrong and before she heard the twig snap behind her she knew that someone was there. She knew that she did not have the strength to fight, of course that didn’t mean that she would not try. But Talea did not get a chance, she turned around too late and saw only darkness as a bag was pulled over her head and shoulders. Another man roughly grabbed her arms and tied them painfully behind her. She was lifted onto someone’s shoulders her feet were bound so quickly she didn’t have time to even kick her captor. Then her head exploded with dreadful pain and unconsciousness prevented any further struggles as she was carried off into the darkness.

**********************

Part Three

By the time Gabrielle had reached Xena all the bad guys were lying either groaning or unconscious on the ground around her.

"You keep getting better at this," Gabrielle exclaimed. Xena, however, was not elated by her run in with bandits, she could sense a trap.

"Where is Talea?" Gabrielle looked around them.

"She should be here. She was just behind me, only she said she would come from a different direction."

"They must have been after her. I should have known these fools were just a distraction. Lets have a look around."

Once they had gone back to the campsite to make torches, they followed Talea’s tracks from the clearing until they stopped and were joined by numerous others.

"She must have been attacked. Come to think of it, she left without taking a weapon with her so she would have been pretty easy to ambush."

"No, Gabrielle, Talea is always forewarned by her abilities. She can sense the presence of others in her mind. How else could she have told you that those guys jumped me? That ability can only be dulled by pain, physical or emotional." Xena’s forehead was creased with confusion and worry for her friend. She turned around in circles, looking for a clue as to why Talea was missing.

"But Xena look how many footprints are here. There must have been about eight men and Talea didn’t have a weapon."

"Do I need a weapon to fight eight men? No. Neither does Talea, not as long as I’ve known her. Hey, look at this!" Xena put her torch beside a tree and showed Gabrielle what she had found.

"Put your hand beside it, Gabrielle, your hands are about Talea’s size." Xena watched as Gabrielle put her hand beside the bloody print. "Yeah, definitely Talea’s. I would say it was pain that made her susceptible to an attack. But what could she have been in pain for?"

"Maybe there was a trap back there, or she could have tripped over."

"No, if she had gotten caught in a trap we would have seen one around here and if she had fallen over her tracks would have shown it. If she had hit her head she wouldn’t have been able to make that hand print and we would have seen evidence of her being dragged or at least having laid somewhere. She was carried out of here. I don’t know how she was hurt, though."

**********************

"The Master said we had to take her to Tempolis. We have to get there as soon as possible."

"I don’t care. This little brat floored me in the tavern an’ she’s gonna pay for it."

Talea recognised him as the guy from the tavern where she had had lunch and realised he must have been following her all day. Talk about a grudge! Then she heard a knife being drawn.

"You so much as touch a hair on her head and I shall remove yours from your shoulders. Do you understand?"

"Y Y...yes, Master! I... I won’t touch her!"

"Good. Now I want you to take her to Tempolis. Make sure you are not noticed. And boys, be careful with her. I don’t want her hurt, but nor do I want her to escape. If either happens the deal is off and you all die."

Talea could not recognise the voice but its familiarity tugged at her memory. She closed her eyes and retreated into her inner mind, where her visions came. She could see the man from the tavern, who was looking very scared of a hooded man. There was an aura about the faceless man that seemed familiar but she could not place it. He reminded her of her dark past with Xena. The other man who appeared to be second in charge was totally unrecognisable, except for his boots. These boots belonged to the man who had put the bag over her face, his boots were the last thing that Talea remembered seeing with her eyes. Just then Talea could feel the pain in her chest, it burned her lungs and throat. The fluid she could feel pooling inside her made her want to cough. She tried to keep it in but her body would not allow it. The pain clouded her mind and the bag over her face began to suffocate her. Faintly she heard footsteps rush toward her. The bag was quickly pulled off and her head was held gently by a large, soft hand. His other hand was covering her mouth, this she tried to prevent, knowing what the consequences of such contact would be. But he insisted and only when the coughing fit subsided did he remove his hand, which lightly brushed her lips as he pulled away.

"Blood. Hand me that cloth over there." His associates watched him calmly wipe his hand and then fold the stained side inwards and bend down in front of Talea. Gently, the hooded man cupped her chin and wiped the blood off her mouth. He stood up and then suddenly the cloth caught fire. This surprised the men but the hooded man only looked down at Talea. She shrugged at him and then leant back against the tree.

The cloth burning in the man’s hands almost sent the thugs running, only the promised treasure at the end of their task kept them glued to the ground. However they did turn as pale as ghosts. The hooded man threw the ashes away and turned to the two men. He laughed when he saw their faces.

"Keep the bag off her head and untie her feet. She won’t be able to run anywhere. Stop whenever she starts coughing and get out of her way, its catching." Anticipating their questions, he said "she won’t be able to run when she’s like that, she can barely breathe. Wipe the blood off her mouth and then burn the cloth. After you wipe her mouth, put that ale to good use and wash your hands with it, as well as with water. When you get to Tempolis make sure you go unnoticed. Remember the place where I’ll meet you?" They nodded. "Good. Remember: try and make as much time as you can because Xena won’t be far behind. Get to Tempolis before she does, you’ll have more of a chance then. Now pack everything you’ll need and hurry." Then he turned around to look at Talea. Through the foggy haze of pain she saw the white glint of a smile directed at her before he disappeared into the darkness. What she did not see, though, was that the smile was a sad one, and full of regret.

**********************

Xena and Gabrielle had gone back to the campsite to get their things before leaving to follow the tracks the bandits had ‘carelessly’ made. The tracks led the two around in circles then left and then right. It seemed as though they were headed nowhere and both Gabrielle and Xena surmised that the bandits were not as stupid as the women had thought they were. It was well past dawn before Xena and Gabrielle were finally led to the road, where the tracks stopped.

"Great. Which way did they go?" Gabrielle, feeling rather defeated, sat down on a rock.

"Well from the angle of these tracks they must be headed..." Just then Argo thundered up behind them and skidded to a stop. The two women looked at each other in amazement, it was the first time Argo had come without being called! She trotted up to Xena and nudged her shoulder before kneeling down.

"She wants me to get on! Come on, Gabrielle! She must know where Talea has gone." Argo broke into a gallop on the road. "I think we are headed for Tempolis."

"How would Argo know where Talea has gone?"

"She must have communicated with him and told him."

"Yeah, right. I still find the whole thing a little confusing. Talking to a horse, inside its head."

"I suppose it does, only because it’s new to you. What confuses me is why they have taken Talea."

"Maybe it has something to do with you. I mean you haven’t seen her for years and then as soon as you catch up with her, someone kidnaps her."

"You’re right. It all seems so carefully planned. Someone must have known she had been looking for me for a long time now, and that she was headed this way."

"There seems to be a lot more to her search than just catching up with you after a few years. There seemed to be some sort of reservation about her, like she was hiding something. Talea had a purpose in coming here."

"Well, lets think about it. Where are we? Tempolis is not far from here but there are all sorts of villages around here too. Talea could have been going to any number of them."

"Okay, then lets look at the broader view. This whole area is famous for its wine, but then so is every other province in the country. Would she come here for the wine?"

"Talea said she was going to a temple. Many people have been healed in Tempolis, could she have been sick? But the temple she was going to wasn’t in Tempolis." Xena’s brows creased with confusion.

"Why would she try to hide it? She does look very pale, though, and it would explain why she wasn’t able to fight. And what sort of disease would make her hand bleed?"

" Maybe it wasn’t her hand that was bleeding. Okay, if she was going to a temple to be healed, why wouldn’t she go to one in Tempolis? Since she was trying to hide her sickness we have to assume she was trying not to spoil the reunion."

"Which Gods don’t have temples there?" Gabrielle looked at Xena with sincere sympathy. "There’s only one, Xena..."

"Hades," they said in unison.

"She must be dying, Gabrielle. She wanted to see me again before she died. We have to find her."

**********************

Talea and her captors reached Tempolis by mid afternoon. They had had to stop many times on the way and each time she had a coughing fit the pain intensified tenfold. Talea knew time was running out for her but she did not want to die while she was a captive. She pleaded rest numerous times so she could reserve her strength which seemed to be running out fast. Now they were just wandering around the streets of the city, well it seemed that way to Talea. So as not to arouse suspicion, the men had untied Talea but kept a firm hold on her arms. While they were wandering the streets Talea kept an eye out for a convenient escape that wouldn’t require all of her energy.

**********************

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